If cinema's taught us anything, it's that one summer can change the course of your life. For most of us it's maybe three weeks of decent sun scattered across four months of newspaper stories about big cats wandering around Herefordshire, but in films The Big Summer is when you work out what you want, have your heart broken, spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for something to happen, and look for adventure.
The rhythm of the school year, and the step up the high school food chain which comes each September, makes each summer a sacred time for capers, adventures, and self-discovery. Later on, they're a pause for breath between the really big leaps between school and university, or between university and the rest of your life. After that, they're a great time to lure the three men you suspect are your dad to your mum's hotel on a Greek island and rattle through the ABBA back catalogue together. These are the best summer films ever made.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Writer-director Lynne Ramsay's pitch-black psychological drama follows the titular Morvern, a supermarket worker living in an out-of-the-way Scottish port town who finds her boyfriend dead one Christmas morning. He leaves her a mixtape, some Christmas presents, a note and his unpublished novel. Morvern decides she's going to pretend he's just left, steal his novel and go on holiday. This might be the chilliest summer film of them all, but it's still got that summery sense of transformation at its cold, nihilistic heart.
Eighth Grade (2018)
With only a few weeks of school left before the summer holidays, young Kayla is wracked with self-doubt and anxiety. She's voted 'most quiet' by her peers and her motivational YouTube videos – trying to motivate herself, more than anything – get next to no views. Gradually, she comes out of her shell and tries to ingratiate herself with the popular kids, all the while trying to work out who she actually wants to be. Bo Burnham's debut is an empathetic, funny portrait of what it's like trying to make sense of yourself when part of yourself is living online.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Summer is a time for dreaming and for fantasy, and Wes Anderson's pre-teen runaways are totally committed to the new life they decide to create for themselves. Having fallen for each other over a summer of letter-writing in 1965, Sam and Suzy run away from summer camp together in search of a secluded cove to hang out in. Unfortunately for them the adults – and Sam's Scout troupe – are on their tail. Sweet as it is, there's sense of time running out for Sam and Suzy; the camp is called Summer's End, after all, and they stand on the edge of a less innocent age. The cast is, as you might expect, absolutely stacked: Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel all feature.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee's New York feels like the most energetic and buzzy city in the world, and in his first masterwork that simmering energy boils over into open hostility and violence one hot summer day. Mookie (Lee) is a pizza delivery boy for Sal (Danny Aiello), but Sal's openly racist son Pino (John Turturro) won't stop needling him. A vast cast of indelible characters swirl through the neighbourhood – most notably Radio Raheem, he of the LOVE and HATE knuckle rings – but at the heart of it all is a provocative questioning about protest and justice. Lee has reflected that it tends only to be white viewers who ask him whether Mookie does, in fact, do the right thing.
Steven Spielberg's unpatriotic shark knackers Amity Island's 4 July celebrations by chomping three youngsters to bits. This is probably the great example of what Spielberg's really good at. There's suggestion as well as spectacle, and pruning plot points from Peter Benchley's short story leaves a lean story about post-Watergate America's jaded mistrust of the man in charge. On top of being set at the height of an endless summer, Jaws ushered in its own summertime tradition: the blockbuster release. Universal backed it heavily – unusually for the time, it opened at 400 cinemas at once on 20 June 1975 – and when queues started forming around the block it made a stonking return. After Jaws came Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Top Gun and the event movie era.
Endless summer isn't always a shorthand for freedom and wholesome youthfulness. In Ari Aster's eye-popping (quite literally in the extended cut) horror, the round-the-clock sun of a commune in northern Sweden is a place where there are no shadows for any emotional ghouls to hide in. For Dani (Florence Pugh), lured to the commune with her anthropology student boyfriend's mates, that means a failing, distant relationship and a deep family trauma are held out in the light until they start to crack. It's equal parts The Wicker Man, High Fidelity, and that bit in Scanners where the guy's head explodes.
Rear Window (1954)
It's very, very hot in photographer LB 'Jeff' Jeffries' (Jimmy Stewart) Manhattan apartment. He's recuperating after picking up a broken leg on a job, and he's bored. At least there are the antics of his neighbours to keep an eye on via his telephoto lens. A young couple gets home from their honeymoon; a dancer stretches and twists; a lonely woman goes through the motions of a date. But there's something darker too: a salesman whose wife has suddenly disappeared. Alfred Hitchcock's masterful construction and Stewart and Grace Kelly's easy charm keep Rear Window fresh, and it's only become more pertinent as the years have passed. Jeff's voyeurism is also our own, which might be why the finale feels so genuinely tense. The windows are like so many widescreen cinema screens showing vignettes straight from movie genres – there's music, melodrama, romance, sex and, most gripping of all, murder – and we looked too.
My Summer of Love (2004)
Two bored young women from opposing sides of the Yorkshire tracks – horsey boarding school veteran Tamsin (Emily Blunt) and working class Mona (Natalie Case) – find themselves gravitating toward one another over a long, lazy summer. Mona's brother Phil has become a born-again Christian in prison and he's turning the family pub upside down. As the sun starts to set on Tamsin and Mona's summer together, things get darker and more gnarled.
Mamma Mia! (2008)
I don't think I need to make plain the many, many merits of Mamma Mia!. The ABBA jukebox musical is the closest film has come to capturing the feeling of being somewhere very hot and just about to start your third fishbowl of the afternoon. This is a film so sun-drenched you can draw vitamin D from it. Beside a sea the sugary blue of WKD, bride-to-be Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) gets her three possible dads (Colin Firth, Stellen Skarsgard, a truly majestic Pierce Brosnan) to come to the remote Greek island she lives on with her mum (Meryl Streep) to see who's actually her real dad. It's berserk, kitschy, bombastic, hilarious and weirdly moving. The 'Money, Money, Money' sequence, where Meryl, Julie Walters and Christina Baranski are suddenly on a megayacht playing a non-specific casino game, will never not make me shriek with joy.
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